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These brothers invented ‘smart’ motorized wheelchair tech to prevent collisions and injuries

December 2, 2021, 9:00 PM UTC

Barry Dean knew next to nothing about wheelchairs before his daughter, Katherine, needed one. Now, Dean and his brother Jered are revolutionizing how people use motorized wheelchairs with LUCI, an add-on system of sensors that prevent accidents and improve handling.

Radar, cameras, and other sensors run through a computer connected to the user’s joystick. The system, which attaches to a motorized wheelchair, can see cats, curbs, walls—things that people who can walk don’t think twice about. 

Going off a curb can cause a chair to tip, leading to serious injuries, LUCI CEO Barry Dean said Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif. “Most of these chairs, two to four inches will flip the chair and cause horrible injuries. The average curb is six inches. I didn’t know that when I started; I have a daughter in a wheelchair, and I had no idea about any of this.”

As he spoke, Jered, the company’s chief technology officer, got into the chair and drove straight for the stage’s edge. Only inches away, he continued pressing the joystick forward, but the LUCI system detected the drop-off and stopped short. Without the brothers’ smart system, a standard “dumb” chair would not only have spilled Jered on the floor, the chair would have landed on top of him. 

Motorized wheelchairs weigh a few hundred pounds, which is a major reason why accidents in them produce such serious injuries. Electric-powered wheelchairs are more susceptible to sideways falls, which are more likely to result in injuries that need medical attention, according to a 2016 article in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

Those falls can cause concussions and traumatic brain injuries, among others, according to the paper’s authors. Based on crash test data, they found that curb height and angle of approach had much greater effect than speed on the severity of the fall. 

Unlike autonomous driving cars that operate on roads with national design standards, “this problem is in the unmapped spaces, the unstructured places, the places that don’t have rules of the road,” Jered said. “That’s where we live.”

The system is constantly mapping, analyzing, and, if need be, reacting to its environment. That is hard enough to do with static objects. It becomes much more difficult with moving objects, like a crowd of people, the brothers explained. 

Nonetheless, LUCI can handle what the brothers call the “Disney after the fireworks” scenario: a wheelchair user in the middle of a large crowd that will clear out at the same time once the event ends. 

“My choice is: Do I leave before it’s over? Or do I wait until the park clears out?” Barry said. “The other way is you can have dynamic sensors and technology that allow you to truly be included in the crowd if you want to be.”

He walked in front of the chair driven by Jered and stopped short. They were close enough that if he had been looking at a smartphone, he easily might have walked into his brother. But LUCI stopped almost immediately. 

Years ago, Barry looked for a sensor system for his daughter, but he couldn’t find anything, he said. “We realized we weren’t going to spend Katherine’s lifetime waiting for someone to do it.” 

His brother developed a system for his niece’s wheelchair, which led to LUCI, named for Katherine’s favorite Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” according to the company’s website. 

LUCI went on the market in 2020 with a sticker price of almost $9,000. The company is trying to get insurance providers to cover its cost, according to the website. The system currently fits several wheelchair models, and the company says its goal is to make LUCI fit any motorized chair on the market.

Investors should care because the wheelchair industry is a multi-billion dollar market, which likely will grow as life expectancies increase, the founders said.

Moreover, “anybody in this room can join the disability community this afternoon,” Jered said. “If we all live long enough, at a certain age, we probably will, statistically.” 

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